Saturday, 30 June 2012

Books I Read In June

As regular readers will be aware, with my work on a number of e-books and being unemployed and facing losing my house for the third time in four years, I have rather been neglecting this blog.  When I am unemployed I also read a lot less than when in work.  However, this time, in contrast to the past, the way I was treated in my last job has left me so mentally and physically ill that I am now sleeping very badly.  Waking in the early hours I have an opportunity to read a bit more than would be typical.  Despite having four job interviews, it has been made clear to me that I am not wanted increasingly in brusque and unpleasant ways that show an anger in that somehow I tricked the employer into interviewing me.  That is my own industry so my attempts to move into some other sector have proven even harder.  Anyway, it seems this situation is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

'The Perfect Murder' by H.R.F. Keating
This is the first Inspector Ghote story set in India in the 1960s, contemporary to when it was written.  I got it as part of a three-book anthology.  It is an interesting insight into Indian culture and as far as I know about that it appears genuine.  The book is incredibly frustrating because Ghote faces so many unpleasant people, not in the sense of being evil, but because of their arrogance and their wish to obstruct any investigation simply because of their own petty viewpoints and assumptions.  Ghote has to investigate the assault on a personal assistant, the Mr. Perfect of the title (when in the civil service in the UK I handled a case file of a Miss. Perfect and one of a Miss. Innocent).  He has to battle with the obstruction of the wealthy, the government and even his wife plus the ambivalent input of a visiting Swedish criminologist.  In many ways it reminded me of the work of two of my favourite crime authors Leonardo Sciscia and Josef Skvorecky, both of whom write detective stories in settings in which because of the society it is difficult to bring the miscreant to justice.  With Keating's book, I found my tolerance for obstruction was reached, but that may simply reflect me exhausting my reserves dealing with such pettiness and stupidity in my own workplace.  I will see how I feel when I come to the other stories in the anthology.  In terms of conjuring up a time and a place, plus believable if infuriating characters, Keating is a success.

'Alternate Generals II' ed. by Harry Turtledove
This is a better reasonable collection of 'what if?' stories with a more or less military focus. 'American Mandate' by James Fiscus, I have mentioned before.  It features a US mandate in Constantinople following a First World War in which the Ottoman Empire surrendered in September 1918 and the difficulties Pershing faces in dealing with Kemal Ataturk nationalist revolution.  It speaks to issues of American military involvement overseas especially in post-war situations and would be sufficient basis for a full-length novel.  'Southern Strategy' is pretty bizarre, being set in 1950s in southern USA which has been occupied by a peace-keeping force primarily made up of the victorious Central Powers of the First World War.  The force is to counter lynchings of black people and the guerrilla action in response by blacks.  The story is highly depressing especially the failure of Adlai Stevenson to sort out an American solution to the situation and hilariously it appears Richard Nixon is guerilla leader.  'Uncle Alf' by Turtledove himself sees Adolf Hitler in his genuine role as a counter-espionage agent for the German Army but operating in a Belgium which has been occupied by the Germans after they won the First World War.  It is shown in a series of letters to his niece who he was attracted to in our world leading to her suicide.

'Horizon' by Noreen Doyle is about different outcomes in the conflicts between the Ancient Egyptians and the Hittites, but unfortunately I know insufficient about what actually happened to see how different the outcomes in this story were.  'Devil's Bargain' by Judith Tarr is probably the first counter-factual story I have read about the Crusades.  It features King Richard I of England making a deal with the Assassins to win Jerusalem and again could easily bear being made into a full-length novel.  I enjoyed this one.  'George Patton Slept Here' sees a more effective Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 leading to the capture of more German forces followed by the occupation of Sardinia and Corsica making the war in Italy shorter.  'Tarnished Glory' by Chris Bunch is more extremely counter-factual seeing General Armstrong Custer alive at the time of the Second World War in place of Patton leading to a different outcome to the Battle of the Bulge.  In 'Compadres' by S.M. Stirling and Richard Foss, the border of the USA has been set about 100 miles farther South so that the Mexican provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua have become part of the USA, presumably following the Mexican-American War of 1846-8 and as a consequence, Pancho Villa has fought alongside Theodore Roosevelt and is shown becoming his Vice-President in 1901.  It is an interesting what if? and I would have liked to see more about the outcomes beyond the very personal focus on Roosevelt and then Villa.

'And the Glory of Them' by Susan Shwartz sees a minor change in the capture of the citadel of Antioch in 1098 during the Crusades.  The change seems to be so small as to have minimal impact and the future changes are not really apparent, though it is the second to feature a change during the Crusades.  'Twelve Legions of Angels' by R.M. Meluch features Hugh Dowding deciding to retire and focus on raising a family rather than remaining in the RAF.  Consequently the British adopted a far more aggressive approach leading to defeat in the Battle of Britain and conquest by Nazi Germany.  It is interesting to see how a choice not to sacrifice a particular path to happiness can have vast consequences.  'In the Prison of His Days' by Joel Richards sees W.B. Yeats taking part in the Easter Uprising by Irish Nationalists in 1916 making minimal difference to anyone's life except his own.  'Labor Relations' by Esther M. Friesner is an utterly bizarre counter-factual about an elderly Korean woman ending the phantom pregnancy of Japanese Empress Jingu who was supposed to have lived to 100 years old and invaded Korea in the 3rd century CE; seems a pretty pointless story.  'Empire' by William Sanders, sees Napoleon having emigrated to America in his youth and rising to become Emperor of Lousiania which has expanded to absorb some of the southern states of our world's USA, facing an invasion by the British, presumably in 1815, following a failed attempt by Louisiana to recapture Canada from the British.

'The Wasp Factory' by Iain Banks
This novel which is told from the viewpoint of a murderous 16-year old boy living on a Scottish island, is far better than I had expected.  Whilst it sees the world from the disturbed perspective of the boy, it is not fragmented in the way 'The Tesseract' that I read last month was and shows that you can do weird without being incoherent.  Alex Garland could learn a lot from Banks.  While I could not say I enjoyed this book, it certainly is an engaging novel, which conjures up a place, time and characters though unpleasant are credible.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Myth Of Benefits

It was not long after I had started working in offices, even for comparatively small companies, that I came across what I think of as the 'Holy Grail Syndrome'. There may be some official term for it, but that is the one I use. Basically it is a belief that is widespread across a company and held very strongly that some handbook or piece of software exists that contains regulations, guidance or some facility that you need to solve some common problem in the company. I have held down over 16 jobs in the past 25 years and have encountered this view in almost every single one. Of course, if you ask where this handbook is or where you can download or install the software from, no-one knows, but they would swear that someone knows, you just have to ask. The trouble is, once you have asked around and found that no such thing exists and so the problem you have encountered cannot be solved by this non-existent thing, then you encounter hostility. The response is that you must be useless or stupid not to have been able to locate the item or have simply not spoken to the right people. The faith in the item exceeds faith in your abilities and so your reputation suffers. In the end you have to simply put up with the problem the way everyone else has done up until then or look a complete idiot and/or lazy. I thought encountering this attitude once or twice was just coincidence but have now found it so prevalent that it seems inherent in a range of British workplaces. I wonder if readers from elsewhere have found it in their country too or if it is confined to the particular attitudes of the UK.

Now I am unemployed once more and on the slippery slope yet again to having my house repossessed I have encountered a very similar situation in regard to benefits paid by the government. I have had very good moral and financial support from my family as has the woman who lives in my house and shares the mortgage with me. Her business is in meltdown given the economic climate, another complicating factor I will come to in a minute. Anyway, the hardest thing to deal with after the lack of money, having no job and about to lose our house, is how repeatedly friends and family keep saying 'I cannot understand why you cannot get benefits to pay for this stuff' and then followed up with 'have you asked?' and then 'you can't have asked properly/in the right way'. Then you get 'in the papers you read about these people get hundreds/thousands of pounds and you are more deserving than them, why can't you get this money?'. So it goes on. We are made to appear as if we are lazy or clueless because we cannot get the funds that everyone knows that other people are getting.

I have worked in a job centre and I know how hard it is to sign on to get benefits and how rigorous the checks are on people. As someone who has been unemployed more than he has been in work in the past three years, I have also seen it from the consumers' side too. I have noted before, how if there are doubts about the way your job ended, even if you were made redundant, this can delay or eliminate your ability to even claim the basic Jobseekers' Allowance: This has happened this time round. First my claim was delayed by over five weeks while they Department for Work and Pensions tried to work out why the woman in my house could be working 16-20 hours and ending the week with less money than she started. These days they assume everyone gets paid minimum wage for every hour they work. However, this does not apply if you run your own business. As prices have been slashed she is now in a situation where competitors are selling at below the price she paid for her stock, so when she sells it, it is at a loss. She has been told she cannot wind up the business because that would be making herself deliberately unemployed which would bar her and me from benefits and yet she is not losing enough to be declared bankrupt. Every week I have to fill in an inappropriate form for her saying how many hours she has worked and when she will be paid by her 'employer' and how much tax she has paid, assuming she is on PAYE (Pay As You Earn) rather than Self-Assessed Tax. The net pay these days is generally a negative number. There is no form available if you have someone who is self-employed in the house, but you still have to show how their 'income' impacts on the household budget, week-after-week. Of course, there is no government pay to plug a loss.

After the situation of the woman in my house was sorted out I received backdated benefit of £70 (€88.20; US$108.50) which does not cover the food and utility bills but is something. It also opens up the door to other benefits, notably reducing the council tax to 20% of the usual charge, once we have filled in the relevant six-page document from the council, and after 13 weeks of unemployment, the interest, not the capital, on the mortgage will be paid. However, by the time that comes around we will have lost the house as we are already defaulting on the mortgage. One month's default puts a black mark on the credit rating of everyone in the house for six years, even if they are not named on the mortgage (I had a friend who was affected by his father's bad credit rating years after he had left home); by the second month's default they move to repossession, on the third month's there is no way back. So, I thought, great, despite the complexity of the business situation, I could at least get some money. Then what happens? My previous company, the one that discriminated against me and treated me in such an appalling way, decided that it had not hammered me enought and wrote the Department of Work and Pensions to say that I had left my job in an inappropriate way. I had made great efforts to secure accurate letters outlining what had happened so that I would be acceptable to the government and then I find the vindictive staff have decided to try to reverse this and so get me barred from benefits for six months. Once the Jobseeker's Allowance is taken back the other benefits fall down like a house of cards even down to the boy who lives in my house being disallowed from getting school meals.

Of course, this is not the picture which is painted in the media. You only have to walk into a supermarket to see the right-wing newspapers, notably 'The Daily Mail' screaming about 'dole cheats'; people having multiple children to earn benefits or being foreigners and qualifying immediately for payments and people working and getting paid benefits paid unchallenged. I have seen how hard it is from both the civil servants' side and the claimants' side. I have seen the anti-fraud teams setting out from job centres to catch the genuine criminals who tend to be men running cleaning, building or agricultural businesses who organise for their workers to claim so they can reduce their pay. I know how whenever I go to a job interview or go into a benefit office or even to the bank, I have to produce a current British passport as if identity cards have been introduced by the back door. Even if you manage to fool the job centre, what do you get? I was receiving £70 per week and a couple could get £111 as if the second adult is expected to eat a fraction of what the first one does. You could get more from stealing a mobile phone from someone let alone their bicycle.

The constant stories about people getting so much money out of the state makes it impossible for anyone receiving the standard benefit payments let alone people like me, who because of complex issues, regulations and the malice of employers, cannot even get that. Family and friends believe it is so easy to get this money that I should be able to pay the mortgage and other bills, when in fact I am battling to get even the money to pay for food and it now seems that even that has been choked off. The sensational headlines pander to the prejudices of readers and sell more newspapers, but they make it even harder to claim benefits , which is part of the reason billions of pounds remain unclaimed. I think this is partly a drive to benefit employers by encouraging people to take any low paid job going, even those below minimum wage. The woman in my house is trained in catering and a woman who range a catering service offered her a job, saying she could set her own pay level. The woman from my house did, asking for £10 per hour and then reducing it to £7.50 per hour for a ten hour day. The caterer laid her off after that day, expressing anger that the woman from my house did not ask for pay below the minimum wage, even though to pay it was illegal.

There are people who manipulate the system, but the extent and the severity of it is far, far less than the myths that are peddled by the newspapers. By lying in this way, they hurt ordinary people, trying to get the low levels of benefit they are entitled to and allow family, friends and even random strangers to harangue those of us who are trying to hard to get what we are entitled to, let alone need. When you have no job accusations of laziness or lacking knowledge are hard enough to deal with, without this extra layer of stress being rained down on you by those who should be most supportive.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Kindling Some E-Books

Regular readers may have noticed that some of the stories once posted here have disappeared.  This is because I have been introduced to published e-books for free via Amazon.  Whilst they are aimed primarily at the Kindle electronic book reader market, you can download a tool which allows you to read it on your home computer or laptop.  I was introduced to this system known as KDP - Kindle Direct Publishing by the woman in my house who is a novelist and had been encouraged, once the publishing house who produced her books collapsed, to transform her books into e-books.  The advantage is that you keep control over the books and you get a far higher royalty.  She used to receive 10% of the cover price of each printed book she sold which usually came out at 80p (€1.01; US$1.24).  On KDP you can either have 35% or in some regions, notably the UK, USA, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, and at some book prices you can get 70% of the price you set.  This means that prices are cheaper.  They are based on the US$ rate you set so even if you put the book up at the same US price at different times you will find it translates into to different £ and € prices.  If you set the book price at certain levels and a royalty of 35% it can be 'borrowed' and you get a share of a fund each time the book is taken out.  However, as yet none of the books I have set to being borrowable has been borrowed even once despite being up for 3 months now.  You can put your book up for free if you like so that it simply gets out there and you can also take part in a promotion period run for your book by KDP.  The one drawback of the promotion period is that when you come off it and go back to full price you are likely to then attract lots of negative feedback.

As with a lot of online provision, people basically want stuff for free or a nominal price.  This is not helped by a lot of writers charging incredibly low prices.  As regular readers know I enjoy alternate history books and you can pick full length alternate history novels with good reviews for 77¢ or US$1.19 (£0.77;  €0.98).  I value my time and effort higher than this, but I guess they are working on the 'stack them high and sell them cheap' principle.  As on eBay and even trading on 'World of Warcraft' it is incredible how few people have even the basic grasp of trading and unfortunately it makes it hard to command even a price which would have been incredibly cheap for a printed novel, let alone one that can make more than pennies, even though the work that goes into them is no less.  There is a lot of advice online about marketing your stuff through KDP and one suggestion from 'Let's Get Digital' by David Gaughran is to start at around US$5 for a full-length novel and something like US$2-3 for a novella.  As he notes, it is far easier to reduce a price if you are not selling rather than raise it.  However, I have seen some authors do that when their sales have risen.

The material on the KDP service varies considerably.  There are categories you can put your work into, to help prospective readers.  When I checked a few weeks ago there were 3 books classed as being 'sea stories' and 44,000 classed as 'erotica' of all kinds.  Some people simply put up short stories of 20 pages and charge for these.  This is one issue which seems rather to be overlooked.  I have put up full-length novels and they have sold nothing or only a handful.  However, short stories and collections of essays fly off the 'shelves'.  In terms of what interests readers I have found a big difference between the site and the .com ones.  The latter is not simply for US customers but anyone elsewhere in the world who does not have a nation specific Amazon site so you can get customers from India or Sweden buying through it.  Surprisingly I have sold a range of stuff to Germany but not enough to see a clear pattern of demand.

It is quite easy to understand why even at a time when novels are selling much more than in recent years due to the numerous book clubs, that through KDP it is short stories and essays that sell best.  This is really about how the Kindle is used.  Its key benefit is its portability and I imagine a lot of usage is while people are travelling or are waiting for someone.  The functionality for returning to where you were before is not yet great and there are not numerous 'block tags', i.e. sections that you can jump straight to, which have been around for over a decade within publishing documents and is even now a feature of Word if you set it up correctly.  Thus, quick satisfaction, things you can dip into and out of as you would with a magazine are favoured.  Thus, ironically I have sold tens of copies more of my collections of 'what if?' essays through KDP when the woman in my house, despite being a well-reviewed author, has only sold a handful of her full-length novels.  Saying this, the erotic novel, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by E. L. James (2011) is reputedly the best-selling product on Kindle.  This probably stems from who owns Kindles and I guess middle-aged women are in the majority.  Something sexy and elicit seems to fit with Kindle usage and reading a novel like that next to a partner or in a public place is akin to the adult version of reading comics under the bed covers with a torch when you are supposed to be sleeping.

I hope that this will be a new avenue for short story and especially essay writing.  Of course, there have been magazines, but short stories tended to be limited to publications for elderly women rather than more broadly.  Blogs and other sites are another source, the author Margaret Atwood raves about Wattpad a free online source of stories, many of which have more youthful and contemporary themes such as supernatural aspects.  As I have noted before, there is an issue of quality, but in this context the customer is all powerful.  On KDP you can even return purchases and be refunded if it turns out that they are not what you thought.  Of course the prices are very low compared to buying a book from a shop, but some people seem to want even their £1 back.  In some cases I am sure they have read and returned rather than bothering with the Kindle library.  People seem to like doing that no matter what the context as the woman in my house knows from clothing bought through her online business and then returned worn.  I suppose it is simply characteristic of our society in which everyone feels they are being cheated unless they can squeeze every last gramme of advantage out of the seller.  Customers then, can walk away, not simply before purchasing but even afterwards.  Of course, there will be wonderful writing that will be missed in the morass of stuff being published and conversely poor quality stuff may sell by the bucketload.

Feedback does not really help because as with voting in the Eurovision song contest, it is so abused in any online context.  As I have noted before, trawling the internet to comment negatively on things seems to be a hobby in itself.  Often the commentators simply expose their lack of understanding of the topic being discussed and usually are using it to exercise this need to be indignant which is the most incredibly pervasive trend of contemporary society, more on that in subsequent posts.  Indignation is proving to be a bigger driver even than lust.  In additon, there are marketing dirty tricks, authors slagging off rivals in their genre.  There is no honour, it appears, in the world of online publishing, but again that reflects our society in which no trick seems to be too low to be seen as acceptable business practice these days.  Feedback can help guide the reader, but it needs to be used carefully; good work may be concealed behind indignant or undermining comments and bad between false praise.

There are a couple of things that need to apply if you are putting your work online.  One is good spelling and grammar.  Even though I see even official documents with such errors, the e-book buying public is incredibly intolerant of them.  The advantage as a writer is if you spot something, it only takes a few hours, 12 hours at most if you write in English, to substitute a corrected version.  In one of mine I had written 'Belgian' when I meant 'Belgium' and I spotted it before any readers commented on it, not that I have had any comments on my books, for some reason.  Poor grammar and spelling will not stop sales but may dent subsequent sales.  I advise use all spelling and grammar checking tools you can; leave a period between writing and submitting your work to allow your 'eye' to become sensitive once again to errors in the text you know so well; read it aloud and if you can, get someone else to read it whether in person or online.

The other thing is the cover.  You can go with a default cover that Amazon assigns but it makes the book look like a West German text book from the 1970s.  Invest in a cheap graphics package or photo manipulation package and start trawling the internet for copyright free images.  This can be incredibly hard as search engines send back images from sites that sell pictures for hundreds and hundreds of the responses you find.  It may be easier to take shots yourself.  Another source are people's home snaps on websites, Facebook pages or blogs, especially if you edit or tint them.  I know a lot of artists these days work with 'found' images, but I am uncertain about the morality of this, especially as they are usually derived from collections put up by ordinary people as they do not have the software to block copying; though this is easy on a system like Flickr.  Personally I am not averse to seeing a shot from one of my French cycling trips appearing on someone's book cover, but others might not be so happy, especially if it turned out to be something in the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' genre.  Anyway, whatever you do for the cover, look what colours are used for your genre.  Interestingly some of these seem influenced by the old Penguin covers for books, so crime has a green tinge and there is a lot of red in erotica it seems, or grey or blue now.  Books on warfare have tanks or aircraft on and alternate history has a lot of flags.  Make sure that there is clear text that can be seen even when the image is at thumbnail size.  Remember it is harder to sell the concept of a novel from the cover than something like an essay collection.

I have found that e-book publishing has reinvigorated my writing but has pushed it in certain directions.  Maybe it will not revolutionise publishing but it will sit alongside print books, self-publishing and website material as another way to access stories.  The thing is, it works for a certain sort of writing and if you want to succeed in it, rather than simply getting your stuff to a small audience this way, then you may have to recognise that only certain types of book will work for this market at the moment.  Saying that, I suspect many changes in the years to come.

P.P. 16/07/2012
I have noticed something else that happens if one of you books sells quite a few copies.  I have my books at a particular set of prices, usually US$5.00 and US$3.50 depending on the length.  These are translated into £ and € at different prices depending on the current US$:£ and US$:€ rate, so if you price them at the same US price even a day or two apart, they can appear lower or higher in price in these other currencies than the book you put up previously.  This is not the only changes in prices, however.  Whilst 'behind the scenes' in terms of what I can see the prices do not change, I have noticed, as I sell more of a particular book, its price to the customer falls.  In some ways this creates a vicious circle as the books that were selling well anyway now look better value and when compared with your less popular books, these increasingly look over-priced.  I have no idea why Amazon does this, but it does attract readers to particular books and can leave others to wither.  As I have noted, my essay collections sell better than my novels and as they become cheaper, my novels look increasingly like a poor deal.  I guess it is Amazon's intention to encourage prices to fall even further using this method, but I cling on as I think my labour is worth at least something and in fact I put more effort into the novels that the essay collections anyway.

P.P. 02/09/2012 - It's Mainly For Americans
So aftwe the last few weeks I have been selling literally hundreds of books via the KDP system and I am wondering when I am going to get paid.  Then I realise I have not read the small print.  Most of my sales are with which sells in dollars, being based in the USA.  The laws of the USA mean that 30% of all royalties earned by people who are not Americans are held back by the US government which means I now find myself funding the wars the USA is perpetrating around the planet to the tune of hundreds of dollars.  A further problem is that Amazon will not send funds to non-US banks.  This contrasts with sales in the EU which even if in euros get sent to my UK bank account.  I cannot set up a US bank account so they will only send me a cheque or 'check' as they call it.  Now to get royalties sent electronically you only have to earn US$10 per month, but to get one of these checks, you have to earn US$100, which means the money is sitting longer with Amazon and gaining interest and of course 30% of it goes to the US government even for sales which are made outside the USA such as to say Argentina or South Africa or Australia.  Thus, I now find myself earning money from my books not for myself but for Amazon and the US government.  It is clear that unless you are a US taxpayer, the system in place for these Kindle books primarily benefits someone other than yourself.  I hate the fact that my books are paying for bullets killing Afghans and missions leading to ordinary US citizens to be mutilated or killed, let alone the nuclear weapons I am paying to maintain.  I feel utterly dirtied by this and wish I had read more carefully before going into this.  Yes, I have read how you can get a deal if your home country has a tax treaty with the USA.  Being unemployed I will have to give it a go.  However, will be hampered by the US demands for me to prove my identity as I cannot afford to renew my passport.  It is always those struggling who are made to struggle harder, the rich just laugh.

P.P. 14/11/2012 One Mediocre Review Can Wreck Your Sales
I had been a bit disappointed that none of my books had had any reviews from readers.  However, I then realised that I should have been more careful about what I wished for.  I had a review of 'Other Paths' which up until then had been my best selling book.  The review gave it only 3 stars out of a possible 5.  The review is reasonably positive, but the reviewer is Finnish and took offence at my portrayal of Finland during the Second World War, so marked the book down.  He saw my portrayal as an 'error' when in fact it was just a difference of opinion from his viewpoint.  I have noticed this problem on reviews for other 'what if?' history books, people tend to rate them by whether they agree with the conclusions contained in the book, rather than the quality of the writing or the research.  However, it is clear that many people shopping for books online simply look at the star rating without reading why that rating has been given.  As a consequence of this single mediocre review sales of 'Other Paths' have dropped abruptly by two-thirds, losing me US$60-70 per month (after tax) and halting the rising popularity of the book.  Someone could utterly destroy my sales simply by posting mediocre reviews on them.  I can understand why so many leading authors indulge in 'sock puppetry', i.e. adopting fake identities and then reviewing their own work positively.  Without positive comments you might as well abandon selling the book as readers will not touch it, if it lacks the magic 5 stars.